Iraq, Media, Politics and Public Opinion

Via Balkinization, I found a survey of US public opinion of the Iraq war and related matters. This survey has a lot of interesting information regarding public beliefs about the Iraq war and their correlation with media and political beliefs.

Regarding Iraq’s connections to al-Qaeda, 22% thought that Iraq was directly involved in carrying out the September 11th attacks while 35% believed Iraq gave substantial support to al-Qaeda, but was not involved in the September 11th attacks. Only 7% were of the opinion that there was no connection while 30% believed that a few al-Qaeda individuals visited Iraq or had contact with Iraqi officials. This was well-known as I have posted about it before. What’s surprising is that 48% think that the US has found clear evidence in Iraq that Saddam Hussein was working closely with the al-Qaeda terrorist organization.

Also, 24% of the people surveyed in September believe that the US has found Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. And it seems all of them live in some bizarro-world because 20% think that Iraq used chemical or biological weapons in the war that just ended.

I have mentioned before that Americans have a very high opinion of their effect on the world. It seems it can sometimes extend to hallucinating about world opinion. A quarter of the people think that a majority of the people of the world favored the US going to war while another 31% believe that world opinion was equally divided on the matter.

The survey looks at three major misconceptions related to the war:

  • Evidence of links between Iraq and al-Qaeda have been found.
  • Weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq.
  • World public opinion favored the US going to war with Iraq.

Their findings were scary:

Misperceptions were not limited to a small minority that had repeated misperceptions. A majority of 60% had at least one of these three unambiguous misperceptions, and only 30% had no misperceptions. […]Thirty-two percent had just one of the misperceptions (and no more), 20% had two of the misperceptions and just 8% had all three of the misperceptions.

It seems that the support for the war was heavily dependent on these misperceptions.

58% of those who believed that Iraq was directly involved in carrying out the September 11th attacks approved of the US going to war without UN approval. These guys sure are crazy. What were the other 42% thinking? No, Iraq attacked us but we are nice people, we don’t want to go to war. Wholly irrational! This support for war reduced to 37% among those who thought that Iraq gave substantial support to al-Qaeda, but was not involved in the September 11th attacks. It was similar (32%) if one believed that a few al-Qaeda individuals visited Iraq or had contact with Iraqi officials while 25% of those who didn’t see any connection between al-Qaeda and Iraq still wanted war.

Another irrationality: A full 33% did not support war (i.e., 67% supported war) among those who believed that the US has found clear evidence in Iraq that Saddam Hussein was working closely with the al-Qaeda. These 33% get an award for holding two contradictory thoughts as well as believing in falsehoods. Only 29% of those who thought that the US has not found clear evidence support the war.

74% of the people who think that the US has found Iraqi weapons of mass destruction support the Iraq war, while 42% who believe that WMD have not been found do.

Looking at the three misperceptions, it is clear that support for war was bigger among those who were misinformed:

No misperceptions 23%
Only 1 misperception 53%
Only 2 misperceptions 78%
All 3 misperceptions 86%

The most interesting part of their analysis has to do with the correlation between the misperceptions about the war and their news source.

Misperceptions Fox CBS ABC CNN NBC Print NPR/PBS
None 20% 30 % 39% 45% 45% 53% 77%
1 or more 80% 71% 61% 55% 55% 47% 23%
2 or more 69% 51% 41% 38% 34% 26% 13%
All 3 45% 15% 16% 13% 12% 9% 4%

Seems like Fox News viewers have lots of problems with facts!

The number of respondents for this table was 1,362 only which can be a problem especially for NPR/PBS (3%), so they analyzed the larger data:

To check these striking findings, we analyzed the data a different way, using the larger sample of 3,334 who had answered at least one of the three questions just mentioned. For each misperception we determined how widespread it was in each media audience […], and then for each media audience averaged this frequency for the three misperceptions. […]Again, the Fox News audience showed the highest average rate of misperceptions—45%—
while the NPR/PBS audience showed the lowest—10%.

Is the explanation politics then? Do Republican watch more Fox News than Democrats? Possibly, but not completely.

Looking just at Republicans, the average rate for the three key misperceptions was 43%. For Republican Fox viewers, however the average rate was 54% while for Republicans who get their news from PBS-NPR the average rate is 32%. This same pattern obtains with Democrats and independents.

Could it be demographics?

Among those with a bachelor’s degree or more, the average rate of misperceptions was 27%. However among those who get their news from print media the average rate was 20%, while among those who get their news from PBS-NPR the average rate was 10%. This pattern obtains at other educational levels as well.

May be it is because some people pay more attention to the news than others.

While it would seem that misperceptions are derived from a failure to pay
attention to the news, overall, those who pay greater attention to the news are no less likely to have misperceptions. Among those who primarily watch Fox, those who pay more attention are more likely to have misperceptions [almost doubling for each of the 3 misperceptions from those who don’t follow news closely at all to those that follow it very closely — ZA]. Only those who mostly get their news from print media, and to some extent those who primarily watch CNN, have fewer misperceptions as they pay more attention.

Going back to political views, it seems that support for Bush is the critical factor in having these misperceptions, not Republican identity.

Here is the average frequency of key misperceptions among those who plan to vote for:

Supporter of Average misperception frequency
President George Bush 45%
Democratic nominee 17%
Misperception support Bush support Democrat
Evidence of links to al-Qaeda 68% 31%
WMD found 31% 10%
World public opinion favorable 36% 11%

And it doesn’t matter whether you are Republican, Democrat or independent.

Among Bush supporters, Republicans, Democrats and independents were similarly likely to believe that the US has found clear evidence that Saddam Hussein was working closely with al-Qaeda (pro-Bush Republicans 68%, pro-Bush Democrats 77%, pro-Bush independents 66%).

Your illness becomes worse if you are both a supporter of President Bush and watch Fox News.

78% of Bush supporters who watch Fox News thought the US has found evidence of a direct link to al-Qaeda, but only 50% of Bush supporters in the PBS and NPR audience thought this. On the other side, 48% of Democrat supporters who watch Fox News thought the US has found evidence of a direct link to al-Qaeda, but not one single respondent who is a Democrat supporter and relies on PBS and NPR for network news thought the US had found such evidence.

Also, being a supporter of President Bush has the same effect on you as watching Fox News. The more you follow the news, the more misinformed you become.

Exposure to news support Bush support Democrat
Not closely at all 40% 22%
Not very closely 43% 20%
Somewhat closely 44% 16%
Very closely 54% 11%

Moral of the story: Stay away from Fox News. If you can’t, don’t follow the news on it closely. You’ll be less misinformed if you don’t watch their news.

By Zack

Dad, gadget guy, bookworm, political animal, global nomad, cyclist, hiker, tennis player, photographer


  1. This was a fascinating study. Fortunately, I don’t watch Fox. Actually, I don’t even have a TV. Most of the time, I figure it’s just as well.

  2. That is just scary. It worries me how easily and how prevalently Americans are brain-washed. Chalk that up as another reason I’m no longer there.

  3. It’s not really the media brainwashing the public, it’s more of the public not really bothered with the outside world. Or so it seems.

  4. Al-Muhajabah: Good for you. I don’t have a TV either, but I do have a TV card in my PC. I get most of my news from the print media (online) and from the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. 🙂

    Owl: It is a common human trait. I am surprised at the interpretations of facts that Pakistanis hold as well.

    KO: I think it is a combination of people’s tendencies and opinions as well as what some parts of the media catering to those opinions cover.

  5. I think this is not brainwashing, but wishful thinking. there are some links from saddam to al qaeda, but no links from saddam and 9/11. the president already clarified the latter. I’m suspicious of these polls and how they are worded also.


    Iraq connections to al qaeda:


    OWL: I’m glad you are no longer here also.

  6. AJ: No need to be so rude to other commenters.

    Regarding the poll wording, you can find it here.

    I do agree that it is wishful thinking, but the correlation with Fox News and Bush support is very high. Also, this is not a small fraction of the population.

  7. Some of the “misconceptions” are actually not misconceptions but the truth. I don’t see how you don’t understand this concept. see this and this
    If you were to take a poll in Turkey or any other Islamic democracy and ask them if Bush knew about 9/11 before it happened, or if the jews were behind 9/11, or if we were fighting this war just to seize Iraqi’s oil fields, what kind of numbers would you get? The same questions applied to listeners of NPR or readers of The Nation/NYT/WaPo/Krugmanites/PBS/Robert Fisk?

  8. AJ: I am still not convinced. If the truth is as Stephen Hayes alleges in the Weekly Standard article, then why is the administration not saying anyhing about it? After all, the Bush administration was pretty vocal about it before the war. There are other problems with his article which I don;t have time to go into right now.

    About the misconceptions in the Muslim world, sure there are many and I have blogged about those as well. But isn’t that beside the point?

  9. Let me put it to you this way. Most Americans think that

    Also, I didn’t say the “muslim world”. I said muslims in democracies. I can understand how those listening to propaganda from state controlled media can be misled, but I am referring to muslims in democracies.

    The #1 bestseller in France was a 9/11 planned by the government to attack afghanistan.L’Efroyable Imposture. If you asked the above questions in France, Germany, and Russia what would the answers be? The point is that I think this poll is flawed, and most people are misled about a lot of things.

    Look at this poll about Russia. – Lenin and Stalin total 17%.

    Samuel Clemens once said: “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

    How sweet it is: Respect for Clinton rebounds among Americans
    Not to sound like an elitist(which your whole post smacks of), but the American people are wrong about a lot of things. The order of which president is the greatest is completely absurd. Clinton is not third. He is one of the worst. He shouldn’t even be in the top 25. Polling is always flawed. If 58% of people thought Saddam did carry out 9/11, the support for this war would have been huge. This is a damned lie. Most people I talk to don’t believe this. How about people you know?

    “Evidence of links to al-Qaeda 68% 31% “

    The more Bush non supporters who watch PBS and listen to NPR and read Fisk/Franken/Nation/NYT/WaPo would say no to this question. However, the answer is yes based on the evidence at this point. (maybe the evidence will be overturned later, but it isn’t now). Therefore, leftwing media misleads bush haters.

    Moral of the story: Get off of your high horse.

  10. AJ: I don’t believe polls are always correct, but they are not necessarily bunk either. Also, I can’t negate a poll based on anecdotal evidence.

    About Russia, France, Muslims in democracies. They all can have misconceptions (or even delusions) as well. That is a completely separate point from my post.

    About the Clinton as one of the greatest Presidents poll, that can simply be explained as preference for recent events. It’s always a problem with polls that ask people to compare things or people separated by centuries.

    You have given links to a lot of articles. Unfortunately, I am very busy and won’t get to reading them for some time. I might be able to reply adequately after I have read them.

  11. Osama’s Best Friend

    Polling as Pseudoscience

    Taken as a whole, polls about evolution certainly do suggest that we need much better science education in this country. But polls about evolution and Intelligent Design conducted by Zogby International on behalf of the Discovery Institute and its ilk show something else as well. Not only do Americans need to understand the difference between evolution and its pseudoscientific rivals, they also need to grasp that polling is prone to its own form of pseudoscience. The leap between a given survey finding and changes in public policy tends to be fraught in any case—something that polling experts repeatedly warn against. Such warnings have even more force when self-interested advocacy groups fund scientifically questionable surveys.

    Zack, I know you are intellegent enough to know that you are wrong on this one. This is my last post. I know you are busy, so I’ll just assume that you know you are wrong. Thank you.

  12. AJ: Sorry about not being able to have an intelligent discussion with you.

    I agree that a lot of polls have problems, including this one. Regarding media coverage, I don’t like Fox News but I generally don’t like TV news at all. The BBC is an exception which I watch because they have much more extensive international coverage than Fox, CBS, NBC, or CNN.

    Regarding the misconceptions, I am not convinced that they are anything but.

  13. Civil Liberties, Republicans and TV News

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  14. Civil Liberties, Republicans and TV News

    There is an interesting public opinion survey out from Cornell. In a study to determine how much the public fears terrorism, almost half of respondents polled nationally said they believe the U.S. government should — in some way — curtail…

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